In Haiti, Tracing a Paradise Lost

In Haiti, Tracing a Paradise Lost

   The U.N. says the country is now stable, and tourism is growing. But the former vacation paradise still has a faded beauty.

   Haiti is a fixture in my mind, as permanent as memories of high school graduation or the weekend I first met my wife.

   I lived there twice as an American diplomat for a total of four years since 2000, but its hold on me is not a function of time. Of all the countries I lived and worked in, Haiti stood out as the most beautiful, the most colorful and the poorest. It melds French, African and Caribbean cultures into something truly unique, less than two hours from Miami. Yet it also resists easy definition. It is an open, free place filled with secrets.

   Today there are conflicting signs about where Haiti is going. The U.N. Security Council decided recently to close down the peacekeeping mission it has maintained in Haiti since 2004.

   The U.N. Secretary-General’s final report on the mission concluded: “The many setbacks and challenges notwithstanding, including the disaster caused by the January 2010 earthquake and at least six major hurricanes, substantial headway was made, and today the Haitian people enjoy a considerable degree of security and greater stability.”

   The last day of the mission was Oct. 15. (A successor mission will have a much smaller footprint.) Since then, the United States has revoked the temporary protected status of nearly 60,000 Haitians in the country, citing Haiti’s recovery as the reason for doing so.

   However, Haiti remains one of the poorest countries in the world, according to the World Bank, with a G.D.P. per capita of $846. Fifty-nine percent of Haitians live under the national poverty line of $2.41 a day. Economic growth is low, and political strife is constant. The State Department “warns U.S. citizens to carefully consider the risks of traveling to Haiti,” an admonition that has been in place for as long as I can remember.

   This November, I returned to Haiti as a tourist, curious to see the country after a five-year absence. I had heard that the highways had improved, and so planned a weeklong road trip, starting in Port-au-Prince before moving on to the southern and northern coasts.

   Tourism and Haiti may not seem like they go together, but in the years after World War II, the country belonged to the Caribbean highlight reel. A 1947 New York Times article with the headline “The Pleasures of Haiti” described it as “fiercely independent, riotously colorful, and surprisingly inexpensive” and recommended hotels, bars and places to visit. I found similar articles from the 1930s through the end of the 1950s, all extolling Haiti’s exceptional culture and many attractions. Cruise ships and planes unloaded tourists in Port-au-Prince, where they would stroll through downtown and buy souvenirs in this “shoppers’ paradise,” according to an article from 1956.

   It has been several generations since Haiti was a major tourist destination, but it may become one again. International hotel chains have arrived, and the number of flights to the country has increased substantially. For years, American Airlines was the only U.S. carrier flying in or out but now JetBlue, Spirit and Delta also serve Port-au-Prince, and American has begun a daily flight to Cap Haitien.

   When I arrived this fall, my friend Pierre Esperance picked me up at the Port-au-Prince airport. I’ve known Pierre since 2000, a year after he was attacked and almost assassinated due to his occupation as Haiti’s most prominent human rights activist. Despite the attack and other threats, he’s still in the same line of work.

   Pierre is optimistic, even ebullient, yet also a cleareyed observer of Haiti’s dysfunction. That evening, when I asked him to assess the country’s current situation, his amiable disposition shifted to neutral. Haiti was in an uncertain place, he said, facing a mix of progress and setbacks. Road infrastructure had improved, as had the police, but Haiti’s institutions were much too weak and the political will to support them did not exist. The justice and prison sectors were particularly problematic.

   We chatted on his terrace, filled with pink, white, red, and orange bougainvillea, and waited for the electricity to come on. Pierre’s house gets power only a few hours every day, and he is one of the lucky ones. It is a stark reminder that in some ways Haiti has progressed very little. Pierre was born on nearby Gonâve Island, and grew up without any electricity during the dictatorship of Jean-Claude Duvalier.

   Near the end of our evening together, I asked Pierre to compare that dictatorship to the current moment. He laughed and looked surprised. “It’s night and day,” he said. “Because today we have liberty of expression. Under Duvalier’s regime, you could not come here to sit and talk, because there’d be people listening to us and they’d come to arrest us. But today you can walk down the street and speak however you want.”

   I TOURED Port-au-Prince the next day. It was a national holiday, and traffic was light. I visited a few of the capital’s interesting sights: the bustling, rebuilt Iron Market, the Port-au-Prince Cemetery, a warren of snaking pathways around built-up tombs, and the metalworks area in neighboring Croix des Bouquets, where for generations Haitians have transformed the tops of oil drums and other pieces of metal into ornate masterpieces.

   The area improved since I last lived there, with recently paved streets and some new construction. The camps for earthquake victims, which used to cover every open space, were gone. Despite these improvements, though, it was clear that Port-au-Prince was not going to be a tourism hot spot for a long time to come. It is too difficult to move around, and security concerns dominate. If tourism ever returns to Haiti in a meaningful way, it will likely happen first in the provinces.

   For a road trip into the Haiti that exists outside of its capital, I turned to the driver I trust most in the world, Frantz Newbold. I met him in 2000, when he had started work as a driver for the U.S. Embassy, and I had just arrived for a two-year assignment.

   Frantz, the photographer Chris Miller and I started our road trip by heading south toward Saint Louis du Sud, a town on Haiti’s southern coast. Inspired by the Bradt Haiti guide, I was looking for old forts.

   We found the first one, Fort Olivier, on the edge of a promontory near town, in a pleasant open area dotted with palm trees. By itself, it would be a worthy stop on any tourist excursion. The real masterpiece, though, was Fort Anglais, which occupied an entire island just offshore. We bargained with local fishermen to take us there, and climbed into their rickety dugout canoe, literally a floating mango tree trunk with its insides scooped out. It was brightly painted in the red and blue of the Haitian flag.

   Chris and I spent hours clambering through the fort, which was thickly covered in underbrush, banyan trees and guarded by suspicious goats. Built by the French in 1702, Fort Anglais was a spectacular find, the type of place that if properly restored, would undoubtedly be a top destination. There was even the beginning of tourist infrastructure, in the form of two concrete piers built to connect Fort Anglais to the mainland. For the time being, though, it sat in the middle of a gorgeous, white sand-lined Caribbean bay, largely ignored.

   While clawing through the fort’s underbrush, I suddenly came upon a thick drapery of banyan roots covering the entrance to an intact room. Blue-tailed lizards congregated on the roots and I spent a few minutes just looking at them. When I finally pushed into the room, I discovered an alcove on the far side. Using my phone’s flashlight, I realized that the alcove was actually a tunnel leading down and to the left. For a moment, I was an excited child. I climbed into the alcove and started down the tunnel.

   As I did so, I heard the frantic protests of thousands of insects. I shone the flashlight onto the walls. They were covered with large insects that moved crablike across the glistening stone. They looked like hybrid spider-crickets, and they were on the ceiling too. Some darted across my shoes. I cringed and tried not to shriek.

   I crept forward but the walls narrowed and the remaining space filled with even more insects. I held the flashlight out and saw the passageway curve down into another room. I wanted so badly to go, but I could almost feel the spider-crickets dropping onto my neck and crawling under my T-shirt. In the battle between exciting adventure and large, noisy insects, the insects won. I retreated back into the sun.

   To erase my skin’s memory of this encounter, I walked to the sea-facing side of the island and found a spit of perfectly white sand. Remains of the fort’s exterior walls stuck out of the ankle-high water, which was warm and crystal-clear. The beach was perfect, or at least it would be once the washed-up plastic bottles were removed.

   I snorkeled for a half-hour, finding coral and small fish, and glancing back now and then at the fort. This was an ideal area for tourism: perfect sand, warm water, and a massive, mysterious fort evoking pirates and buried treasure. Its future, however, was as uncertain as Haiti’s

   We continued exploring Haiti over the next two days as we raced across the southern coast. We found time to root around one of the many caves scattered throughout the mountainous country. Most have a cultural and historical resonance. Taíno Indians, the first inhabitants in Haiti, as well as runaway slaves, used the caves to hide from their oppressors.

   Haiti’s best known cave and one of its largest is Grotte Marie Jeanne. It has several levels, and certain areas remain unexplored. Guides from the nearby town of Port-à-Piment take visitors into deep areas, but many easily accessible caverns are on the surface. While clambering around one of them, we came across an underground chamber dotted with bottles of Barbancourt rum. Apparently, the cave is still used.

   We also stopped by the town of Jacmel, one of Haiti’s top tourist destinations, mainly for the festivities and parades that culminate with the Feb. 4 carnival. Jacmel’s walkable downtown is filled with buildings that evoke its 19th- and 20th-century role as a commercial and shipping hub.

   The minister of tourism envisions Jacmel becoming a cruise ship stop too. It isn’t hard to imagine the old pretty streets downtown and along the seaside boardwalk filled with tourists. Although some buildings in this historic commercial and shipping hub required work, some appeared to need nothing more than a coat of paint.

   Jacmel was an alluring a mix of history, culture, beaches and beauty. Nearby, it even boasts Haiti’s first and only surf club.